I feel a certain affinity for Feinberg as an author because she is one of the few Christian authors out there who is successfully writing nonfiction-...more
I feel a certain affinity for Feinberg as an author because she is one of the few Christian authors out there who is successfully writing nonfiction--and I mean literary nonfiction--in America right now.* No doubt I am also emotionally attached because she spoke at my alma mater (several times, I think?), and at my parents' church in Colorado, and both times she broke the formula that so often turns me off of religious assemblies. Years ago, my parents sent me a copy of Scouting the Divine, a book which features wine and walking and sheep, all of which I am fond of.
When I heard Feinberg was coming out with another book (a fact which was hard to miss, since my Twitter, Pinterest, and other feeds were completely swamped with promotional articles, reviews, quotes, mentions, and so on), I felt compelled to pick up a copy. I was even more interested after a gchat conversation with a friend of mine abroad, a friend who happens to struggle with cultural Christianity as much or more than I do. When I mentioned the book, she wrote back with a quote from a book blurb: "Wonderstruck is a personal invitation for you to toss back the covers, climb out of bed, and drink in the fullness of life," citing such upbeat language as a guaranteed "turn off." I was, and remain, curious as to why it is so unusual--perhaps even unacceptable?--to be honest about suffering in the Church. I'm talking about style and voice as much as content.**
I have now read Wonderstruck. I even bought a copy, because I have developed a bad habit of writing in the margins of books. And yes, I can confirm that Feinberg falls into many of the same ruts (though I wince at the word) that I find a lot of inspirational speakers do, and many if not most Christian nonfiction writers do. This book describes a moment of Feinberg's life that was unmitigatedly painful. So far, so good. But it ends with a thirty-day challenge (and each challenge is spelled out for the reader) on how to re-ignite one's ability to experience wonder and joy in life. You can imagine that this is exactly the sort of thing that some people want out of their books (Aha! At last! A foolproof way to be happy!). And I applaud those people on finding their perfect match, or what seems like a perfect match, until reality hits home (Darnit. Life doesn't fit into a formula. I can't be happy all the time, and that's okay.). Here is the real sad fact, as far as I'm concerned: Wonderstruck is a how-to book with memoiristic overtones. It is not literary nonfiction.
I recognize and honor the painful nature of the events Feinberg shares in Wonderstruck. I do not in any way wish to discount the validity of her suffering. In many ways, this book is the flipside of a coin (or another facet of the prism) that has inspired books like Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge. The products are completely different, and it just so happens I'm drawn more towards the reflective and less towards the didactic. Which book would I pick to give to a friend facing cancer? If I didn't feel like the offering would be offensive (i.e. "You obviously need help. This book will help fix you.") and if I could offer it in the right spirit (i.e. "I speak book, and I love you."), I would pick Refuge every time.
This book marks a departure from Feinberg's earlier Scouting the Divine, a book which now I feel I ought to revisit in order to remember the qualities which I first enjoyed about her writing. I do not dislike Wonderstruck, and perhaps one day I'll find that having a formula to fall back on will be helpful, but for now I'm still hunting for that something else--that rare voice that is unafraid and unapologetic about all facets of life, that old soul who avoids the saccharine siren call of the artificially upbeat, that Christian underground that loves God and suffers, all at the same time, and produces beautiful and lyrical literary nonfiction in the process.
* This is not to say that other American Christians aren't writing nonfiction, or that memoir isn't nonfiction, or even that American Christians who are writing literary nonfiction and aren't household names aren't successful, in some way or shape or form. My conception of literary nonfiction does not exclude memoir from the pantheon of great writing, but is simply one way of describing the nature and content of some books I tend to like. My conception of success in writing does, however, necessitate that the average book-browser will find the book in question outside of a Christian bookstore. Hate on me all you like, but I firmly believe that Christian bookstores, even moreso than non-religiously-affiliated bookstores, have created a self-policing atmosphere that represses original thinking and promotes formulaic or insubstantial writing.
** I remember being told multiple times in college--by close friends!--that my faith was in question. This was news to me, given that of all the things I've lost or failed at in my life, my assurance of God's sovereignty has never been one of them. I have discovered that it is acceptable within the world of American cultural Christianity to be confessional--to pour out one's deepest and darkest struggles--but only if framed as either Part One of a beautiful recovery story, or if framed as "I need help right now." There is little room--but perhaps a growing niche?--for the Christian writer to reflect on so-called "dark subject matter" outside of this formula.(less)
The first time I ran across Kathleen Norris is a bit of a story. Not a terribly long story, really, but a brief sidebar in the larger yarn of my dev...more The first time I ran across Kathleen Norris is a bit of a story. Not a terribly long story, really, but a brief sidebar in the larger yarn of my development as a reader and writer of nonfiction. You see, the first class I ever took that even gave a wink at nonfiction was a college workshop in my third year of undergraduate studies. Yes, yes, it's a bit of a travesty for someone who calls herself a creative writer to go so long without hearing about a whole sub-genre, but in my defense it was a small degree program anyway and I could [and have] stumbled blindly past much greater life-altering discoveries than that of nonfiction, the field I would eventually pick as the love of my [uneventful] life. Anyway. One of the texts we drew from for that class was an anthology put out in 1996 by Mary Paumier Jones and Judith Kitchen, called In Short (later to be followed by In Brief in 1999, and Short Takes in 2005). I devoured this anthology with my usual thoughtlessness, and put it on a shelf until my desire to integrate literary nonfiction into the classroom prompted me to crack it open and dust it off for a new generation of (less enthusiastic) students.
Next to Brenda Peterson's "Growing Up Game" (which I have already blogged about here), my favorite item in In Short was Norris's "Rain." I couldn't have told you why, then, but looking back I think I was drawn to this lyrical excerpt by the way it distills down the atmosphere of Dakota into one short page--seven short paragraphs--of imagery. Dakota sets its readers up well for that moment, when it comes, 143 pages into the text. But even on its own, "Rain" packs quite a wallop. It is a great example of Norris doing what she consistently does so well--formally, descriptively, anecdotally, spiritually.
And the rest of Dakota is excellent. Perhaps its only real flaw is that it can't all pack the same wallop as "Rain"--but then, brevity only works as a formal device when placed in opposition to something, well, that isn't brief at all. And Dakota digs deep into the life of the folk who live out in the plains, into the culture of the dying small towns that interrupt them, and into the worlds of those people who can't imagine living anywhere else. I have been told Dakota is Kathleen Norris' best work, and I believe it. It's a pretty darn good book. And I'm afraid that if I pick up any of her other books, I'll be disappointed. (Especially because the titles--Amazing Grace, Cloister Walk, Little Girls in Church--seem to be too easy of a reach for a girl like me, a girl who has grown up singing hymns and never ever sticking wads of chewed gum on the underside of wooden pews.
I'm not trying to say Dakota is perfect. There are moments when the braided form gets old, or at the very least too predictable. Here's a shout-out to my own composition students: mastery of a form will only get a writer so far; at some point, it has to break down or try something new, or risk growing truly stale. Every element of a text needs to be necessary, or to somehow enrich or inform some other aspect of the text. Beautiful language will only take me so far. Had Dakota's "Weather Report" sections functioned as more than mere lyrical asides, I might not have started skimming them halfway through the book. They were lovely, yes, but that's about it. Much of the emotional pith to Dakota lies not in its lyricism but in its unflinching gaze on the brutal realities of small-town life in rural America.
Truth be told, I don't want to admit that Dakota is specific to a geographic locale. I could just as easily re-title this book Wray, after the small town in northeastern Colorado where my dad was born and raised, and enjoy it to the same exact degree. I spent my first summer back in the United States on a corn farm near Wray, and while I can't pretend to be a native of that town, I feel like it is Lemmon's doppelgänger. But from what I read in the reviews other readers have written, every small town on the American plains is. Perhaps I could erase the word American altogether. Norris has a keen eye and a fine grasp of language, and there is love mixed with honesty in every word.
If you are looking for a book that invokes Americana--if you are looking for a book that is unafraid to bring up questions of faith with the same ink as questions of politics and society and native rights and gender equality and history and agriculture--if you are looking for an engaging introduction to literary nonfiction--if you are looking for a book to crack open in the golden hour before sunset this summer--then I'd recommend Dakota. It's beautiful, it's easy, and it's just popular enough to be widely available.
Okay, so, I'm a Mennonite. Well, I'm half-Mennonite. What I mean to say is, my mother is a full-blooded Mennonite, and I'm her daughter, but since t...more Okay, so, I'm a Mennonite. Well, I'm half-Mennonite. What I mean to say is, my mother is a full-blooded Mennonite, and I'm her daughter, but since the word "Mennonite" has both ethnic and religious undertones, I'm not quite sure where I fall on the "Mennonite--not Mennonite" spectrum. I've inherited some of the blood and none of the theology, at least, not directly. I have absorbed a fair amount, especially since I ran across the story of Menno Simons in my final year of high school. All this to say, I have been orbiting around Mennonite culture and tradition my whole life, struggling to figure out how I fit in as a partial insider and a partial outsider.
Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress isn't actually about Mennonites, or being a Mennonite. It's a memoir of loss, but not the loss of faith. It's a confessional memoir of having been screwed over by her husband, who left her for another man. This is the central tension of the book: What's left after your husband leaves you? Who are you without him? I'm not bothered by this question--it's worth asking. But to advertise this as reflecting an accurate or holistic picture of Mennonite culture would be wrong. And it has been advertised that way.
I really wanted to like this book. I wanted to love it. I'm a nonfiction writer with a bent towards memoir, and I'm (as I mentioned) rather interested in all things Mennonite. This is the one nonfiction book out there that has taken the word Mennonite mainstream. Naturally, therefore, I should read it. But here's a list of things I'm not interested in:
- a book that advertises itself as being about Mennonites and isn't
- a book that wanders, content-wise, with no organizing principle except bitterness
- a memoir that makes all Mennonites seem repressed/repressive/ridiculous
- a memoir whose author mocks her parents for an entire book, under the guise of gentle amusement
- a memoir whose author is deeply insensitive to the possibility that Mennonite tradition isn't just a cultural construct, but a living and active tradition of faith
- a book that equates faith with ignorance and a lack of education
Perhaps I'm sensitized to these sticking points because I'm deeply invested in the notion of a spiritual journey, of seeking out a rich life in the impoverished corners of this world, and in shaping story out of experience. Janzen's book doesn't take anyone on a journey except perhaps her own self. This book is an act of catharsis, of spitting out the poison she's suppressed in herself, of working out her insecurities and demons over having been left by a man with mental health issues for another man that he found on Gay.com. After I closed this book for the last time, I was fully convinced that her problem was not at all with having been raised by Mennonite parents but with not, as the saying goes, being 'woman enough' for her husband. And that, my friends, is a deeply disturbing place to take a reader who is fairly self-empowered and confident in her womanhood.
There are some redeeming qualities to this book. I acknowledge Janzen's complex sense of humor, her attention to detail, and her turn of phrase. I do not, however, appreciate her dismissal or outright malignment of a culture I appreciate and respect so much--even while I recognize the Mennonite community is not perfect, I respect it and hope that others would do the same.
Also, I am offended by her repeated use of her husband's sexuality and mental health issues as a crutch for her black humor. I don't trust Janzen as a narrator because she proves, repeatedly and often, that she will take cheap shots at groups of people she doesn't fully understand.(less)
I love monasticism. I love reading and writing about it, and I love encountering it. Not that I'm a monk, or the sort of ascetic self-denier who wou...more I love monasticism. I love reading and writing about it, and I love encountering it. Not that I'm a monk, or the sort of ascetic self-denier who would be willing to dispense with all my creature comforts on a whim. (I have yet to hear of any tea connoisseurs living under the thumb of Saint Benedict.) There's little chance I'll ever become a monk (and still less, a nun), but I enjoyed my collegiate visits to Subiaco Abbey very much, and hope to go back. (A point of interest: Patrick Leigh Fermor mentions a visit to Subiaco in his introduction.)
I have blogged about Subiaco before (here and here), so I won't burden you with yet another reflection on its many virtues. That monasteries and monastic living foster solitude and repose and reflection is a given; but knowing these things and experiencing them are two very different things. The first couple of hours at a monastery are too full of observations to be truly useful. The gilding, the stained-glass, the vestments have to be admired and dissected and worn, heretic-fashion. The grounds have to be wandered, the hay bales climbed, and the first prayers for peace and progress have to be uttered, the first night spent in spare lodgings, before isolation even snuffles at the door. There's simply too much fun to be had.
The second day is better. And I'll be honest--I haven't ever spent more than a couple days in a row at Subiaco. So I can really only ever speak for first, second, and third days. I was in college, after all. But I have two advantages over Patrick Leigh Fermor: I was a believer long before I first entered a monastery, and I am not by nature a social person. The first advantage meant that I had already studied the tenets of faith and accepted them as true, and didn't have to struggle to reconcile with the ideas of monasticism as well as their physical manifestations. The second advantage means that I could quite happily lock myself away from social media and cell phones and conversation for a good long spell. Not to mention, I like working in gardens and farms, stables, and schools. Subiaco, like most monasteries, is self-sufficient because of the industry of their monks in these areas.
As far as a monastery in Arkansas is like a monastery in France, I can point to marked similarities between my experience at Subiaco and Fermor's at the Abbey of St. Wandrille. And yet, Fermor was not tethered to his own experience; A Time to Keep Silence is an exploration not just of his own memory, but of monastic living in general. He weaves together the history, philosophy, theology, and activity of the monastic movement. It is a slim volume, but he digs deep and sweeps wide. For being so slender, this is a remarkably comprehensive and even-handed volume. An excellent, if brief, introduction to an institution that is, by and large, forgotten by or at odds with life in the modern West. Fermor reminded me of why I fell in love with monasticism in the first place, and of every good memory I keep from my second and third years of college.(less)
Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm is a classic. By that, I mean a lot of things. This slender volume--only seventy-six pages!--includes her famous moth...more Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm is a classic. By that, I mean a lot of things. This slender volume--only seventy-six pages!--includes her famous moth essay, which I was required to read in my second year of college, and which I required my students to read in their first. It's a good essay. Apart from being an instrument of learning (or torture, depending on the student you're talking to), Holy the Firm is classic for another reason: it deals with the classic (or universal) question of suffering. Dillard spent over a year crafting these seventy-six pages, even though the observations they record took place over only three days.
Some scholars suspected Dillard of being high while writing this book, and I can well see why: the language is so elevated, the tone so enthusiastic, and the dialectic between head and heart so amplified, that she seems to have spun out of this earth's orbit entirely. She accomplishes the nonfiction writer's primary goal, and makes the familiar unfamiliar. I, for one, do not suspect her of imbibing hallucinogenics. What of those fourteen months spent drafting so few pages? I suspect Dillard was obsessing over her craft, and tinkering with verbs. I cannot escape them; they enfold me, beat me round the head. I am continually surprised when I re-read a passage and find Dillard using ordinary words and ordinary structures; her arrangements are precise and powerful, carefully calculated for maximum effect. She makes me giddy with words.
Dillard is, after all, a poet.
I must force myself to look at this book through the lens of a student, too, and of someone who will be expected to connect the dots between Holy the Firm and the subject of the interior journey. Sometimes Dillard herself asks the necessary questions. Questions of existence ("Why are there all these apples in the world, and why so wet and transparent?" ), of reality ("But how do we know--how could we know--that the real is there?" ), of worthiness ("Who are we to demand explanations of God?" , and "Who am I to buy the communion wine?" ), and of God's identity and how we figure in ("Has he no power?" , and "The question is, then, whether God touches anything. Is anything firm, or is time on the loose?" ). Unlike Boethius, who I spent the other half of my day reading, Dillard doesn't make Philosophy some exterior person and begin a lengthy dialogue. She keeps Philosophy on a tight leash, interrogates herself, and drowns her reader in impressions. The questions crystallize into story, and Dillard's energetic self seizes upon the exterior world as a metaphor for her inner life. A pipe is not a pipe, a cat is not a cat, and pain is transformation's other face.
Dillard has a terribly modest view of the artist (and therefore, the writer--and therefore, herself): she writes, "What can any artist set on fire but his world? ... His face is flame like a seraph's, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see; his life goes up in the works; his feet are waxen and salt. He is holy and he is firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of his love, in flawed imitation of Christ on the cross stretched both ways unbroken and thorned" (72). So you see, she is unafraid to state what all artists think but rarely feel free to broadcast: we are just so awesome, aren't we? I'm afraid I find this kind of self-gratifying back-patting to be rather a boost to my ailing ego--but I can't stand by it, if only because I've run out of matches and my kindling is damp. I cannot think of myself as a lynchpin for global change--but hey, it's kind of a nice thought, and well in keeping with Dillard's go-gettum attitude. This world does not go quietly into the good night of her senses; it leaves its impressions with all of the rough and tumble fierceness of a tomcat's duel, and all of the sharp clear pain that loss and love can muster.(less)